If knowledge is power, then each sensor that comes online offers an increase in human potential and enhanced decision making.
What if your car could monitor the conditions of the road you are driving on and use that information to alert other drivers, as well as road crews to potholes, icy spots or other dangers? Imagine if the weather information delivered to you each day over your morning coffee arrived with greater accuracy courtesy of crowdsourced data offered up by millions of sensors coming online. Fortunately for us, a world we perhaps relegated to the realm of science fiction is not far off from becoming a feasible reality.
Embedding our objects and devices with more, and more varied, sensors means that collecting and organizing data can become handled by dedicated systems. These systems organize the information of our world, and then analyze it in ways which help us make sense of the world around us. A ‘distributed intelligence’ in this sense, will give us greater freedom by letting us focus our powerful brains, and our precious time, on how it all fits together in the big picture.
Take PressureNET, a project by Canadian company Cumulonimbus, which is a crowdsourced attempt at collecting data from the sensors already embedded in the products we commonly use.
Have you ever left your umbrella at home only to find that the sunny forecast failed to catch those after work showers? Meteorologists make their predictions based on the atmospheric data available to them.
The app leverages the barometric sensor built in to many Android phones so that researchers can have a higher resolution view of weather formations. The more data they have, the more accurate the forecast. Instead of the current system of mostly stationary weather sensors, PressureNET would be a fluid network of data points passively gathering and broadcasting hyper-local atmospheric changes.
Some 18,000 phones worldwide are now contributing around 6,000 measurements every hour. That’s nothing compared to the total number of devices equipped with the right sensors. As more people download the app and connect to PressureNET, researchers will be able to translate this data into highly accurate forecasts of thunderstorms and tornadoes, but smartphones aren’t the only way to add mobility to these networks.
At the individual level, we only increasingly find ourselves being welcomed to participate in the digital murals being painted of our cities.
To crowdsource environmental reporting efforts, the Copenhagen Wheel features a built-in hub to its back tire that collects data on pollution levels, traffic congestion and road conditions in real time, in effect converting travelers into mobile sensing units contributing to a larger conversation around the health of city environments and key infrastructure.
After debuting four years ago as a conference at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference, the bike is finally available for purchase this year, shipping for a little over the cost of a moderately priced road bike.
Volvo has been a longtime pioneer of automotive safety. It’s no wonder that the company is taking advantage of new technology to improve how we monitor and address unsafe driving conditions.
In a partnership with the Swedish and Norwegian governments, Volvo is putting a fleet of test cars on Scandinavian roads. These cars will be able to detect changes in road friction, signaling potentially dangerous conditions like icy or slippery roads, and broadcast that data over a cloud-based system to local maintenance crews as well as other cars nearby. Volvo hopes to make this technology available to consumers within the next few years.
When the road administrator has access to information from a large number of cars, the data can be used to make winter road maintenance more efficient,” said Erik Israelsson, Project Leader Cooperative ITS (Intelligent Transport System) at Volvo Cars, explained in a recent press release. “The information could help to improve road safety further for all road users. This could also reduce the use of salt when not needed and minimize the environmental impact.”
Of course it’s our cities that will see the most immediate effects of this trend.
Earlier this year, Intel and the Dublin City Council announced a joint project to transform Republic of Ireland’s capital into the most densely sensored city in the world. The plan is to place 200 sensor gateways — with up to six sensors each — at key points around Dublin to monitor environmental data, such as air quality and micro-climate conditions.
“This is a very exciting development for Dublin and for Intel,” said the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Oisin Quinn.
“People cycling to work or exercising during the day will be able to find the most environmentally friendly routes. In addition, there will be the opportunity for smartphones to be used as sensors giving further real time information as to how people are using the city to move ab out and for exercise. I hope that the city will respond by providing better cycleways, more trees and making traffic adjustments to reduce areas where air quality is poor or noise levels high.”
The “what if” question of whether these sensors could help improve our roads, environments or weather forecasts is now more accurately replaced by “how could,” leaving the bulk of our thinking around what challenges these systems will help us overcome. When each of us has access to such a large quantity of high-resolution data about the world around us, we will be able to make more informed decisions.
Armed with the best information available, we can focus on the larger implications of global minutiae, and make the big picture decisions that can change our lives for the better.